Mental health (and the flip-side, mental illness) are issues close to my heart. Unfortunately, they still carry a stigma and are widely misunderstood. I’ve seen firsthand how difficult it can be for some people to grasp the basics of mental illness, but you know what? That’s not really their fault, provided they are truly trying and keeping an open mind. If they’ve never experienced it, how can they understand?
I think this stigma and mystification have two parts. First, people aren’t exposed to the vast and diverse multitude of experiences that people with a mental illness have. Second, they don’t even have a language to frame it in their own mind, much less talk about it. This is why writing – fiction and non-fiction – is so important for demystifying and destigmatizing mental health and mental illness.
Even though I come to the table with my fair share of first- and second-hand experience with mental illness, I still seek out books (and articles and essays for that matter) on mental health because no two experiences are exactly alike. I can always learn something new, especially about the diagnoses which I know little about.
Here are just 5 of many books about mental health that I have read and would recommend.
Turtles All the Way Down by: John Green
Blurb: “Sixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Picket, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together, they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Picket’s son, Davis. Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.”
Furiously Happy by: Jenny Lawson
Blurb: “Jenny Lawson follows up her marvelous debut ‘Let’s Pretend This Never Happened’ with her determination to be furiously happy: she will seize the strangest and most glorious moments of her life while she stares down her depression, severe anxiety, avoidant personality disorder, and much more – and dares it to stop her. Furiously Happy is not only a battle cry but a delirious seesaw of a memoir. One moment you swoop upward as Lawson relates her attempts to hold a koala in Australia while wearing a koala costume and explains her quirky love for taxidermied animals (who must be dead from natural causes only) and you’re giggling like a three-year-old. Then your stomach drops like an artillery shell when Lawson exposes the dark side of her mental illnesses: trying not to cut herself and holing up in her bedroom for days on end. The ups and downs make this a difficult book to read on the go. However, Lawson uses both her hilarious and heartbreaking episodes to camouflage so many life lessons and biting observations.”
Girl, Interrupted by: Susanna Kaysen
Blurb: “In 1967, after a session with a psychiatrist she’d never seen before, eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital. She spent most of the next two years in the ward for teenage girls at a psychiatric hospital as renowned for its famous clientele – Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor, and Ray Charles – as for its progressive methods of treating those who could afford its sanctuary. Kaysen’s memoir encompasses horror and razor-edged perception while providing vivid portraits of her fellow patients and their keepers. It is a brilliant evocation of a ‘parallel universe’ set within the kaleidoscopically shifting landscape of the late sixties. Girl, Interrupted is a clear-sighted, unflinching document that gives lasting and specific dimension to our definitions of sane and insane, mental illness and recovery.”
Prozac Nation by: Elizabeth Wurtzel
Blurb: “Elizabeth Wurtzel writes with her finger on the faint pulse of an over-diagnosed generation whose icons are Kurt Cobain, Xanax and pierced tongues. Her famous memoir of her bouts with depression and skirmishes with drugs, Prozac Nation, is a witty and sharp account of the psychopharmacology of an era for readers of Girl, Interrupted and the Bell Jar.”
Blurb: “New York Times bestselling author Roxane Gay has written with intimacy and sensitivity about food and bodies, using her own emotional and psychological struggle as a means of explaining our shared anxieties over pleasure, consumption, appearance and health. As a woman who describes her own body as “wildly undisciplined,” Roxane understands the tension between desire and denial, between self-comfort and self-care. In Hunger, she casts an insightful and critical eye on her childhood, teens, and twenties – including the devastating act of violence that acted as a turning point in her young life – and brings readers into the present and the realities, pains and joys of her daily life. With the bracing candor, vulnerability and authority that have made her one of the most admired voices of her generation, Roxane explores what it means to be overweight in a time where the bigger you are, the less you are seen. Hunger is a deeply personal memoir from one of our finest writers, and tells a story that hasn’t yet been told but needs to be.”
These are just five of many incredible books tackling a range of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, OCD and eating disorders. I hope you give some of them a read and expand your horizons – and your awareness of mental health.